Saturday, March 03, 2007

LA Whinin'

This is my eleventh year living in Los Angeles. Traffic has always been a problem. It's the number one complaint of just about every LA resident, except maybe those unfortunate individuals who reside in the direct flight path of LAX. Or Van Nuys. For some reason, I have known, like, eight different people who have personally related horror stories of life in Van Nuys. I have no idea what's going on over there in the Porn Capital, but if you can manage to avoid settling there, I would highly recommend doing so.

Anyway, I know that it's difficult to be impartial when gauging such things, but I think LA's traffic problem has grown considerably worse in the past year or so. It used to take 45 minutes to an hour in heavy traffic to get across town. I can distinctly recall, as a UCLA student, leaving Westwood at 5 pm to get to a 6:30 screening at the Paramount lot in Hollywood, and having enough time upon arriving to get through the front gate, park and walk to the screening room. If I were making that same drive today, I would leave no later than 4 pm to make sure I had adequate time.

Don't believe me? The other day, I had to travel from my new office (all part of the SMPWCNBN, which I'll actually be able to de-M-ify here in a few weeks) in Santa Monica to the Arclight in Hollywood for the Zodiac screening. 1 hour, 45 minutes it took. The 10 was completely shut down and every single surface street I tried (large and small) was at a standstill. There was no way to go North, South or East.

Lewis Black does a comedy routine about visiting Los Angeles. Eventually, he predicts, the traffic will be so bad, the roads will simply shut down. You will just sit stationary in your driveway forever waiting for nonexistent space to clear for your automobile. He's joking, but it's actually not that far off. It's 6 pm right now and I'm essentially locked in my immediate neighborhood until 8. It's not that it would take a long time or be generally irritating to try and venture any further. It's simply not possible. I would just sit, essentially stationary, in my car on Venice or Overland or the 405 or the 10 until around 7:30.

Last night, my father and brother went to go see the Mighty Ducks play in Orange County. (Don't ask me why, but they're both quite taken with the spectacle of large, toothless Canucks slamming into one another at high speeds in frigid, tightly-packed arenas.) My brother left Santa Monica (I may work there now, but I'll never use the familiar form, San Mo) at 4 in order to make a 7 o'clock hockey game. Now, bear in mind, that's 3 hours. To go less than 50 miles. 3 hours, folks. With open roads, you can get to Vegas in around 4. He was still considerably late to the game, by the way.

My question is...what's the flaw in Black's humorous logic? If the population continues to explode, not only in Los Angeles but every major US city, will we not eventually reach a point where there's just no more room for the excess people? And I don't mean figuratively, like we'll all get a bit more crowded and it will be noisier and more unpleasant and living conditions will worsen. I mean, won't we physically run out of room soon? Will we all just have to start sharing rooms? Is now a good time to invest in bunk bed futures?

And before anyone tries to twist this into a lame right-wing anti-immigration thing, I don't blame an influx of Mexicans into California for this problem. They have as much a right to be here as anybody, and this is a problem all LA residents are facing, not just the poor and disenfranchised.

So here's what I suggest. We have to be practical about this thing. Why do so many people move to Los Angeles? Here are my theories:

(1) The entertainment industry

Not only to talentless morons hoping to be the next Gwen Stefani move to LA, but so do all the Business School and Management assholes hoping to be the next Ari Emanuel or Sherry Lansing. It's fucking scary out there. You can usually tell these people immediately because they will only discuss workout routines or film industry gossip. Often at the same time.

The solution? Legally mandate 1/2 of all entertainment-related companies to Holbrook, Arizona. I've been to Holbrook, and I can tell you, that is a charming little community. While there, I ate at a small diner and met a desert dweller breathing out of an oxygen tank who had come inside to escape the dust storm that had completely shut down the only road out of town!

Anyway, what with Blackberriess and such, all these industry assholes don't need to occupy the same 10 square blocks any more (plus the unwashed masses who have been banished to Burbank). Why not ship half of them to lovely, sparsely populated AZ? let them video conference about the first-weekend grosses of Primeval instead of meeting for six-hour lunches at The Counter?

(2) The beautiful weather

Give climate change a few years and this isn't even going to matter any more. For forward looking investors, might I recommend Duluth and Fargo? A decade or two from now, they'll be downright balmy.

(3) The vibrant culture and sense of community

Nah, I'm just kidding

(4) Scientology

Let's face it...Hollywood is not an appropriate headquarters for a major world religion. If the Hubbardites want us to take them more seriously, they should relocate to somewhere that feels more sacred and holy. Jerusalem, perhaps? Medina? I'm just throwing ideas out there.

(5) UCLA and USC

This is what brought me to Los Angeles (though I grew up just south of here in Irvine). I had a great time at UCLA, and I learned a few things I suppose, but I couldn't in good conscience recommend the school now to an incoming freshman. UCLA (and, to a lesser extent, USC) are simply too crowded.

And not even in a "you'll get lost in the shuffle" kind of way. I sort of think that the need to make a mark in order to separate myself from the teeming crowds drove me to do more with my time at UCLA than I might have otherwise. Right away after arriving there, I joined the school paper, just out of a need to meet some people and develop some kind of stable, familiar strucutre for my life in that chaotic maelstrom.

No, I just mean that it's too goddamn crowded. When I was a student there, approximately one-third of my waking life was spent parking my car, walking back to my dorm from parking my car or worrying about where I was going to park. The student population has exploded since I graduated in 2000, so I can only imagine how much worse it must be now. Likewise, I can recall many days in which I would be unable to find a seat in a common area or student union during a break between classes. Morning walks to class, that might otherwise be pleasant strolls, instead become grim mass marches, with thousands of students proceeding down the same narrow paths in lockstep. Forget finding the library book you need, or even any space to study in the library. And students live absolutely on top of one another. When I was a student, over a decade ago, the school ran out of dorm rooms and forced groups of students to live in open, common rooms that had been set aside for socializing. Six, eight people, squatting in what is essentially a den.

The solution? These schools should accept less kids. Hey, I'm sorry, I know lots of kids want UCLA diplomas and want to come to Los Angeles to study. I did. But no one's getting the most out of these universities under these conditions. I'm sure UC Davis could use a little uptick in admissions. Send some of the underachievers there (particularly if they're passionate about, you know, cows).

Finally, I think it's clear that LA needs some kind of futuristic, super-mass-transit system. Perhaps the magnetic highway from Minority Report? You're telling me that shit's not possible? We've had magnets for centuries already! Or what about some kind of underground bullet train dealie? Just as long as it doesn't run under Paramount studios. That's where they keep the hideous radioactive bloodthirsty cannibal freaks.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Zodiac belongs in the genre known as the "police procedural," but few films take that title so literally. David Fincher's atmospheric, lengthy and complex new film looks at the infamous Zodiac Killer murders from every conceivable angle, examining every last shred of evidence. Just as the trio of protagonists - a reporter, a cartoonist and a cop - grow increasingly obsessed with the case, Fincher's film too lingers on every crime scene photo, visits and revisits every key witness, scrutinzes every connection for some minor, overlooked nuance that might shed some light on this bizarre tangle of events.

The film can be an exhausting experience. For 150 minutes, Fincher piles on the facts, figures and details of the case, rarely coming up for air. It's a rare cop film, or any film for that matter, that's so willing to abandon all structure and storytelling conventions in the service of accurately following an investigation. James Vanderbilt's screenplay is absolutely relentless, and even brave in a way. It counts on an audience to remain actively engaged with an unsolvable mystery for nearly three hours, without ever pandering or breaking the tension. Watching Zodiac is like reading the SFPD police file on the Zodiac case - informative, grim and fascinating.

That's not to say it's dry. In fact, the film's quite funny, with some terrific dialogue and a slew of memorable, lived-in performances. And as I pointed out, this is not a film with a lot of down time. It's captivating, particularly for a film of its length, fast-forwarding through a decade's worth of strange events as succinctly as possible.

I'm just saying, horror and suspense fans looking for Seven Part 2, or anything else looking for a fun movie for a Saturday night, consider yourself warned. This film's closer to Oliver Stone's JFK than Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs.

Why the fascination with catching Zodiac? Reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) notes at one point that more local citizens will lose their life commuting to work that month than were ever killed by the mysterious man in a mask. SFPD Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) muses that 200 San Franciscans have been murdered during the time he's spent seeking out the Zodiac Killer. And yet both of these men devote years of their lives to the case.

If pressed, they'd probably give some stock response. It's their job to find the killer. He needs to be stopped before kills again. The only one who's even remotely honest with himself is cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who hovers around Avery's desk all day absorbing clues and information. Graysmith likes puzzles and begins working out the complicated, coded messages the killer sends to the newspaper after every murder.

For him, what begins as an intellectual exercise - am I more clever than a serial killer? - soon becomes a fixation. Under the guise of writing a book about the case, Graysmith completely loses himself in the piles of forensic evidence, the tiniest details, of all the individual crimes. The positions in which the bodies were found. The pattern of phone calls made the day of the first murder. The handwriting on a promotional poster for a film screening. (In one of the film's many creative passing-of-time montages, Fincher superimposes Zodiac's scrawlings and Graysmith's handwritten notes over the newsroom walls, filling every last corner of space around him with facts, figures and data.)

Graysmith admits to his beleaguered wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) that his passion for the Zodiac is borne of his own vanity. A lowly cartoonist in an office full of massive egos who can't wait to remind him how little he matters, Graysmith at first sees the murders as a way to prove his own worth. He needs to conquer this man, who has made such a display of boastful superiority. The Zodiac states repeatedly that he is smarter and more capable than the police and the reporters and anyone else who could try to catch him (and what are random, motiveless murders but repeated demonstrations of ones mastery over others)?

Some of the most disturbing of his letters to the San Francisco Chronicle detail his warped personal mythology, in which his victims become his slaves in the afterlife, giving him not one but two opportunities to rule over their fate. Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides occasionally shoot the film from what could be considered the delusional Zodiac's point of view, looking down upon the city of San Francisco from an omniscient birds-eye view. (At one point, the camera looks down from an impossible angle on the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. In another sequence, we watch the TransAmerica Pyramid being built in sped-up motion.)

So it's only natural, in a way, that others would respond to this grandiose show of dominance with equal fervor and determination. And perhaps what Vanderbilt and Fincher do best in the film is reflect just how hopeless and soul-sucking an enterprise chasing the Zodiac Killer really was. The film eventually zeroes in on one or two likely suspects, but neither of them seem quite capable of the elaborate scope and craftiness of these crimes. The Zodiac manages to commit several murders, phone the homes of witnesses and journalists, appear by voice on a TV chat show and repeatedly taunt several high-ranking SFPD detectives, all without ever coming close to being caught.

Worse yet, every piece of evidence that comes along in the multiple decades of the investigation seems to contradict all the other evidence. Avery suggests on multiple occasions that the real Zodiac Killer may be taking credit for crimes he did not commit. Was he really the sicko who threatened a mother and her baby on the road near Modesto?

These kinds of uncertainties come to haunt all three men, bringing each of them to a state of mental collapse. All three performers do solid work in the film's final stretch, but Mark Ruffalo in particular stands out. His Toschi, verbally and physically, is utterly unlike any other character the man has ever played. And though Gyllenhaal does a nice job of capturing Graysmith's manic, paranoid intensity in pursuing 10-year old leads, and Downey Jr. has a stark, knowing grace playing a fading alcoholic cokehead, this felt like Ruffalo's movie all the way. He's absolutely heartbreaking when he rejects all of Graysmith's new evidence. He wants to get reinvigorated and finally solve this thing, but knows deep down that the case will never be closed. It has, at this point, already destroyed his career and possibly his life.

Aside from these three strong central performances, Fincher has filled every minute of screen time with great character actors and familiar faces. (I wasn't kidding with those JFK comparisons). The underappreciated Elias Koteas does a nice, subtle job as a canny small town sheriff. Brian Cox is hilarious as the infamous Hollywood lawyer (and Jack Ruby's attorney) Melvin Belli, to whom the Zodiac reaches out in a time of need. Phillip Baker Hall has a few great scenes and a questionable fingerprint expert.

As potential subject Arthur Leigh Allen, John Carroll Lynch gives perhaps the film's best, and certainly most unsettling, performance. Allen's so creepy, Toschi wants to arrest him on the spot, but of course there's no crime against generally being an oddball. I recognized Lynch from his relatively small role as Norm Gunderson in the Coen Brothers' Fargo, but there's absolutely nothing folksy or sweet about Allen. His interrogation is one of the film's most startling, well-written scenes.

Rewatching Silence of the Lambs about a year ago, I noticed its corniness for the first time. The movie scared me shitless when I first saw it years ago, and I have always thought of it as an effective, chilling horror film. Rewatching it, I still admired the Jodie Foster performance and the subtle ways that Demme constantly notes the thinly-veiled sexual harrassment to which all female law enforcement officers become accustomed. But I found the Hopkins performance silly and not particularly frightening, and his increasingly gory antics ludicrous in the extreme. (The human face-mask scene didn't work for me at all. It looks incredibly fake.)

Demme's film takes the business of catching serial murderers and turns it into a cartoon for our entertainment, inspiring an entire generation of mundane TV series and cheap B-grade knockoffs. (Suspect Zero, I'm looking in your direction...) It works alright as a fantasy.

But that's not what Fincher has done here. He already played that game once with Seven, a film I enjoy for its style and performances but don't feel strongly about.

Instead, Zodiac looks at police work clinically, pausing occasionally to note the personality types drawn to this practice and the ensuing fallout on their private lives. In the first third, we see how criminals are generally caught. In the second third, we see why these methods don't work on the Zodiac, and finally, we see how resiliance and pluck and creativity may be able to overcome even his considerable preparation and unique genius. It's a turbulent but ultimately rewarding ride, and one hell of an entertaining film. Probably Fincher's best work yet, and certainly his smartest.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How Convenient!

You guys remember that "Mr. Show" sketch with the Medieval "educational science filmstrip"? If I remember correctly, all science begins when a wizard has an idea. Then, the wizard is drowned, and if he sinks, the idea becomes a theory. Then, the king is told and he consults with his menagerie of birds, and if they approve, it becomes an "old wives' tale" and science marches forward.

This is much the same process wherein dumb mudslinging bullshit travels through the magical portal of The Drudge Report and becomes "conventional wisdom." (No, I'm not linking to Matt Drudge. That asshat gets enough traffic.)

Upset that Al Gore won an Oscar last night for his documentary film while Matt Drudge has only won "Outstanding Achievement in Being a Weasely Guy in an Old-Fashioned Hat,"* today the Internet's answer to Robert Wuhl from Batman dropped a real bombshell on the world. Al Gore has a significantly higher-than-average gas bill!

OMFG SMD WTF1111! 111!!!1!!!11!!1

But he says we should conserve energy! That lying hypocritical hypocrite! Plus, I think he's gained some weight recently!

The surprisingly conservative blogger at What Would Tyler Durden Do reprints Drudge's smear, so I still don't have to link directly to the source. Which means I won't have to take that second shower today after all. (WWTDD's Headline: Al Gore is a Jackass)

Gore’s mansion consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year, according to the Nashville Electric Service (NES). The average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, according to the Department of Energy. In 2006, Gore devoured nearly 221,000 kWh—more than 20 times the national average. Last August alone, Gore burned through 22,619 kWh—guzzling more than twice the electricity in one month than an average American family uses in an entire year. As a result of his energy consumption, Gore’s average monthly electric bill topped $1,359. Since the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s energy consumption has increased from an average of 16,200 kWh per month in 2005, to 18,400 kWh per month in 2006. Gore’s extravagant energy use does not stop at his electric bill. Natural gas bills for Gore’s mansion and guest house averaged $1,080 per month last year … In total, Gore paid nearly $30,000 in combined electricity and natural gas bills for his Nashville estate in 2006.

Oh my gosh! It's almost as if he's a prominant statesman and former US Vice President using his celebrity and stature to raise global awareness of a dire and pressing issue to which he has dedicated a significant portion of his life!

Now, far be it from me to question the wisdom of a man who spends the better part of his day posting partial Fergie nipple slips, but I think WWTDD and all the thousands of other bloggers I viewed via the magic of Technorati are maybe not grasping the real situation here. Sure, it's easy to say that Gore uses more power than the rest of us, therefore he's leaving more of a so-called "carbon footprint" on the planet than we are, therefore he's a hypocrite for telling us to conserve energy.

But this overlooks some pretty important points. Mainly, that we don't know what Gore does to counterbalance his significant energy use, we don't know what he's using all that energy for and we don't know the sum total effect he has had on the world's climate situation. I'll leave it to the Black Sun Journal, who know more about this stuff than I:

Al Gore is a global diplomat and former U.S. Vice President. He has crisscrossed the world with his message, and it’s getting through. Even while Vice-President, his use of Air Force Two raised hackles. But let’s review: The United States is the world’s leading fossil-fuel consumer, and it is an empire. The tools of statecraft are hugely expensive and polluting, but no politician can succeed without them. It’s clearly a lesser of evils situation: leaders can sit with the status quo and do nothing, or they can use the tools at their disposal to raise consciousness. Gore is clearly doing the latter. Despite all his flying and consumption, Gore’s consciousness-raising has set in motion events which have single-handedly removed more CO2 from the atmosphere than any other politician in world history.

It would be a welcome step if Gore could convert his personal electricity usage to renewable energy. But he is involved with a network of organizations who support green energy. Many of these companies deal in REC’s, a method of offsetting the CO2 effects of power consumption through support of wind projects, greenhouse gas disposal, and methane reductions from feedlots, etc.. I researched this for my own energy usage, and last year carbon-neutralized both my vehicles and all my business electricity and gas usage through a company called Terrapass for $243.90.

I’d bet my bottom dollar that Gore and his supporters also offset their energy usage this way. (It was in the credits of An Inconvenient Truth that the film was made with a zero carbon footprint.) As savvy politicians, they’d be insane not to.

I mean, I'm working temporarily out of someone's home these days, along with a few other employees, and I'm certain that our combined efforts are running up an exceptionally high energy bill. It happens. Can our relatively small operation even compare with the publicity machine that must be operating around Al Gore? He's a hugely famous celebrity who's traveling all around the world spreading what he sees as a desperately important message.

Now, of course, anyone's free to disagree with Al Gore about climate change or anything else. I might think you're kind of myopic and stupid, but it's your right to be so. But how can Americans so begrudge his efforts? Do they genuinely doubt his sincerity on this issue after all this time? Could he still just be opportunistically using the environment to get elected to some hypothetical office some time in the future? The man's been making these arguments publicly for decades now!

You know, I don't even blame Matt Drudge and his scummy Rethuglican cohorts around the Internet for hyping this story. It's what they do. Gore just had a big night, he's under consideration for a Nobel Prize this year, global warming deniers are on the brink of looking very very stupid to the few Americans silly enough to still take them seriously. Time to do what guys like Drudge do best: sling some mud, even in a frivolous, purely symbolic way, in the hopes of buying more time.

Honestly, Al Gore may be a hypocrite. I don't know enough about this situation to say one way or the other. (Although considering the sheer, naked, unbalanced enthusiasm of rightards to embrace this story, combined with the fact that the only sources on any of this information are a paid hack from Tennessee and one Mr. Matt Drudge, it's dubious). But does it matter? Does it have anything to do with the sheer tonnage of information and evidence in that movie? Doesn't it say something significant about the global warming nonbelievers that their only argument is a personal attack on the character of Al Gore?

It's just depressing in the extreme to read some of these kneejerk blog posts in response to the Drudge story. In this age where there's so much data and information out there, it's truly tragic that so few Americans have any comprehension of media literacy. You're being spoonfed these talking points, guys, and you eat it up like delicious banana pudding, stuffed with Nilla Wafers of Ignorance.

Steve's MySpace blog opens with this charming headline:

NEWS FLASH: I continue to hate Al Gore.

Hate? Hate. Steve hates Al Gore. And this story allows him to continue doing so without reservation. How convenient!

I mean, really...How dare Al Gore attempt to save all our lives! (I mean, even if you disagree about global warming, you surely must agree that Al Gore thinks he's trying to save our lives. Right? I mean, is he just a pathological liar?)

At a LiveJournal regrettably-yet-accurately titled Farewell-Sanity we find the following statement. This is actually kind of chilling.

Sometimes I want to drown people.... today that person is pathetic Mr. Gore

So it's not just a clever name!

"Guys, did you hear? Al Gore has three fridges! Let's go drown him!"

Here's the writer from Negative99 (otherwise unidentified, from what I could find) with his take on Al Gore's efforts.

This post could have also been called: Global Hysteria is Man-Made - Part Two [Inconvenient ReMiX]

Last night at the Democratic National Conven- err… I mean at the Academy Awards, Al Gore’s well-made yet scientifically shady documentary called An Inconvenient Truth won for best documentary (or something like that). I have trouble believing a guy who parades around the world on private jets to persuade people to “use less fuel”. While I’m at it why doesn’t Rosanne Barr invite me to Old Country Buffet to pitch me a low calorie diet.

I'm guessing the unnamed Mr. 99 is some kind of environmental scientist, or something like that, what with him reporting that fears of global warming are, in fact, hysterical, and that the film An Inconvenient Truth is scientifically "shady."

(I'm also going to just go ahead and assume that he's using "shady" in some elevated, scientific sense of which I am wholly unaware, and not just calling out some of the world's most respected climate experts using a term generally reserved for questionable pot dealers. Perhaps it's Latin.)

He provides no evidence of these claims, but instead links to an article about a company that wants to clean up the harmful environmental effects of your cat's farts. No, really. Cat farts. After the Roseanne Barr fat joke lead in. And they say there's no great conservative comedy any more...

*To be fair, Drudge has won "Outstanding Achievement in Being a Weasely Guy in an Old-Fashioned Hat" for the past six years running.

Sunday, February 25, 2007